The Limbaugh-Maher Equivalence Game

No one was much surprised when the most frequent conservative response to the furor over Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke was not to defend or criticize Rush, but to play “So’s Your Old Man” by pointing at liberals who had supposedly engaged in similar behavior. After trying out Ed Schultz and a variety of more obscure figures as equivalents, the pack eventually settled on comedian Bill Maher, who had used especially vile words in reference to Sarah Palin, and more importantly, had just given a million smackers to Barack Obama’s Super-PAC. As the attacks on Maher increased, even Limbaugh himself got into the act, chortling about the possibility that Maher might be driven from the airwaves instead of Himself.

But the Limbaugh-Maher equivalence game has just taken a more serious turn now that Mitt Romney–whose reaction to the Limbaugh slut-shaming was the tips-from-the-coach comment that it was “not language I would have used”–has denounced Maher and called it “outrageous” that the Super-PAC hadn’t returned his money.

So let’s look at this for a moment. I am not a big fan of Maher’s, finding him often less than hilarious, and a bit too smug and self-satisfied in his political satire for someone who endorsed Ralph Nader in 2000. But his self-defense against the equivalence games being played made some good and essential points. He is a comedian, not someone telling 20 million people how to think and vote. And in terms of his target as compared to Limbaugh’s, he’s right, there’s no equivalence at all:

[Limbaugh] went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people “terrorist” and “unAmerican.” Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.

The reference to Fluke as a “civilian” is a little annoying, at least for those of us who dislike military combat metaphors for politics. But the basic point is exactly right, and goes to what made the attacks on Fluke both significant and very typical: Rush Limbaugh is the quintessential bully. He’s a smug SOB speaking for other smug SOBs, who bullies nearly everyone he mentions, up to and including Republican candidates for president of the United States. And he gets away with it, as evidenced by Romney’s craven reaction to the Fluke incident.

Just once, it would be nice to see Limbaugh truly humbled. And it would be even better if Republican politicians took this signal opportunity to declare independence and say: “Rush, you don’t speak for the party or the conservative movement, and you’re free to express your opinion, but I’m not afraid of you.”

No one for a moment would suggest that Democratic politicians are afraid of Bill Maher or Ed Schultz or Keith Olbermann or anyone else conservatives have tried to offer as Limbaugh’s twins in incivility. This is really not about incivility, anyway, but about power and its abuse. Part of what makes me crazy about Rush’s attacks on Fluke was how lazy he was in smearing her; his attack lines were lifted right out of the ravings of an internet columnist named Craig Bannister (which, as it happens, I had mocked for their stupidity a few days before before without realizing anyone would actually take Bannister seriously) who clearly had forgotten whatever he might have once known about birth control, and who made zero effort to pay attention to Fluke’s actual identity or background. It was the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear from the local bigot at the Nineteenth Hole of a decrepit country club. But Rush went with it, and doubled down on it, with the self-assurance of someone who can’t be touched.

I don’t really care if Limbaugh stays on the air until he’s finally carted off to the world’s poshest retirement home. But he needs to be taken down a few pegs, and only then can conservatives rightfully claim he’s “equivalent” to anyone else.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.